Is data surveillance a motive for China's sports sponsorship?

June 28, 2019 16:17
Chinese smartphone maker OPPO announced in April it has become the first official smartphone partner of The Championships, Wimbledon. Photo: AELTC

Although the latest Grand Slam tennis tournament at Wimbledon is now upon us, it seems unlikely that Chinese players will be prominent during the coming weeks. Currently, the country has no ranked players in the men’s top-100, though as is becoming increasingly a norm in Chinese sport, China’s women are performing better (with four players ranked in the top-100).

Although we won’t be seeing large numbers of China’s tennis professionals crowding the courts of the London-based event, it is highly likely that large numbers of Chinese tennis fans will be congregating at the All England Club to partake in a quintessentially British experience. Indeed, in recent years, the Wimbledon organizers have deliberately sought to entice China’s affluent middle class into engaging with the event’s history and heritage, while persuading them to part with their cash.

Hence, as television cameras pan across the crowds during many of the upcoming matches, one shouldn’t be surprised to see significant numbers of Beijing’s, Shanghai’s and Guangzhou’s new rich soaking up the atmosphere at one of world tennis’ biggest events. Watching the likes of Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka will be one attraction for them, catching a glimpse of a royal family member will be another. And all in a setting that comes laden with Chinese preconceptions about England, Shakespeare, and Harry Potter.

Yet this year’s event will be notable from a Chinese perspective for another reason. For the first time in its history, Wimbledon has a sponsor from Asia in the form of the Guandong OPPO Mobile Telecommunications Corporation. More commonly known simply as Oppo, the Guangdong-headquartered telecoms company is among China’s leading producers of smartphones and other mobile devices.

This is not the first such deal that Oppo has engaged in. The recent French Open tennis Grand Slam also saw the Chinese brand’s name featuring prominently around the courts of Roland Garros in Paris. At the same time, another Oppo deal has featured heavily during the current cricket World Cup as the result of its sponsorship agreement with the world’s leading team, India. Yet Oppo is not alone, as its domestic telecom rival Vivo has also rapidly developed an impressive sports sponsorship portfolio.

One suspects that Vivo’s title sponsorship of Indian Premier League cricket isn’t coincidental, and that it is intended to conveniently sit alongside Oppo’s deal. Vivo also has a high-profile contract with FIFA, which saw it become a World Cup sponsor from 2018 onwards. Yet another Chinese telecoms business, Xiaomi, is similarly making inroads into the world of sponsorship, signing deals with the likes of Indian football’s FC Goa.

Others from the digital sector that have also followed suit are Alipay, which has recently signed a long-term deal with European football’s governing body UEFA, and arguably China’s sponsorship trailblazer Huawei (which at various stages has had deals with properties including Atletico Madrid and Polish international footballer Robert Lewandowski).

Alipay’s UEFA sponsorship sees the company become UEFA's official global payment partner for tournaments such as UEFA EURO 2020 and 2024 as well as the UEFA Nations League finals. In announcing the deal, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said, “Alipay is at the forefront of digital payments and in association with its global partners, Alipay has unique connections with over 900 million users.”

That Chinese telecoms and digital businesses are now immersing themselves in the world of sports sponsorship should be no surprise. Each is a corporation with global aspirations, keen on surpassing the worldwide successes of rivals such as Apple and Samsung. Utilizing the medium of sponsorship builds visibility, awareness and recall, while helping them to establish strategic relationships that can drive business development as well as profitability.

This is all consistent with the Chinese government’s industrial policy, which places global business growth at the heart of sustaining the country’s recently impressive economic development. It is also helping China to build its soft-power influence around the world. Indeed, despite the controversies surrounding Huawei, most mobile-phone users associate the company with good quality phones at affordable prices rather than subterfuge or espionage.

However, it is the international scrutiny of Huawei that raises questions about what else lay behind the rapid emergence of Chinese telecoms and digital businesses, and their apparent thirst for associations with some of world sport’s leading sponsorship properties. There is political capital to be made from the legitimacy that sponsorship confers upon the entities that engage in football, tennis, cricket and other sports deals.

Though as many people now suspect, Huawei may be involved in gathering intelligence using its technology, something that has seen governments as far apart as the United States and Australia refusing to do business with the company. Hence, the use of the word "entity" is entirely appropriate as Chinese businesses are never more than a step or two away from the state.

Observers have long criticized the Chinese government’s use of surveillance, which now even extends to monitoring the movements of people deemed to have displayed socially unacceptable behaviors (such as building up personal debt). In this era of big data, where information is readily collected and analyzed, one therefore wonders what hidden hands are pulling the strings behind the likes of Alipay’s deal with UEFA.

For a Chinese corporation to have access to the data of more than 900 million people, raises questions about what is being done with this data and by whom. It also suggests that sports may have inadvertently become embroiled in a world about which they know little and over which they have no influence.

Oppo and Vivo’s unusually coincidental deals in Indian cricket also suggest some interesting data security issues as well. China and India have a deeply suspicious relationship with one another, often bordering on the fractious. Notwithstanding any commercial intent, China has nevertheless driven itself right into the heart of Indian society via a sport that is more a religion than a competitive contest. One wonders what data benefits this helps to generate in terms of the information that both of these Chinese companies can collect and make available for state-level monitoring.

In the heavily regulated environment of Wimbledon sponsorship, it is unlikely that Oppo will be able to make a huge noise that grabs consumer attention. But for the telecoms company, that may not matter; instead, it may find purpose in its own promotional tag line: "Further your vision". This could also be an allusive tagline for the Chinese government’s possible involvement in the country’s now impressive haul of sponsorship assets.

– Contact us at [email protected]


OPPO vice president Brian Shen at an event announcing the company's sponsorship on The Championships, Wimbledon. Photo: AELTC
UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin (right) and Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma unveil an eight-year global partnership with Alipay, which will cover all UEFA national team football competitions from 2018 to 2026. Photo: UEFA

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.